The J. Paul Getty Museum

[Smiling Man]

Object Details


[Smiling Man]


Unknown maker, American







Object Number:


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Object Description

It would not have been an easy feat to capture this man's spontaneous charm, given the long exposure times of early photography. He wears casual clothing: a union suit and an open-necked shirt with a lightweight jacket. He strikes a pose like a boxer, fists upraised and clenched. His open grin, however, disarms the gesture, creating a lively portrait of an individual whose name and life-story have been lost to history.

More remarkable, perhaps, this free man of color was photographed three years before the Emancipation Proclamation granted African Americans their freedom.

Unlike the daguerreoptype that is on metal, the ambrotype is an underexposed collodion-on-glass negative that appears positive in reflected light if the back of the glass is coated with black lacquer. Made in the same standard sizes and housed in the same cases as daguerreotypes, ambrotypes were faster to make and required less costly raw materials. They began to displace Daguerre's process for most studio portraiture after 1854, when a specific practical variant of the ambrotype process was patented in the United States and England by James Ambrose Cutting.
Adapted from, Interpretive Content Department, 2008; and Weston Naef, The J. Paul Getty Museum Handbook of the Photographs Collection (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1995), 45. © 1995 The J. Paul Getty Museum.


Samuel Wagstaff, Jr., American, 1921 - 1987, sold to the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1984.

Nineteenth Century American Photography (October 26, 1991 to March 29, 1992)
  • The Amon Carter Museum (Fort Worth), October 26, 1991 to January 5, 1992
  • Mead Art Museum (Amherst), February 1 to March 29, 1992
Hidden Witness: African Americans in Early Photography (February 28 to June 18, 1995)
  • The J. Paul Getty Museum (Malibu), February 28 to June 18, 1995
In Focus: Expressions (May 22 to October 28, 2018)
  • The J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center (Los Angeles), May 22 to October 28, 2018

Naef, Weston J. The J. Paul Getty Museum Handbook of the Photographs Collection (Malibu: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1995), p. 45, ill. no. 44.

Education Resources
Education Resources

Education Resource




Historical Witness, Social Messaging

Additional works of art related to the themes and topics of the curriculum.

Breaking the Chains - Intermediate

Lesson about the influence of ancient style of Roman portraiture on Western art and comparing Roman and American slavery.

Visual Arts; History–Social Science


Three/Five-Part Lesson

Breaking the Chains - Advanced

Lesson in which students write narratives from the perspective of slaves depicted in rare photographs, & create a print of a moment.

Visual Arts; History–Social Science


Three/Five-Part Lesson